Amid mixed reactions and some controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently unveiled plans for a new museum, designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, of Genoa, Italy–based Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Zoltan Pali, FAIA, of Culver City, Calif.–based Studio Pali Fekete Architects. The project would renovate the historic May Company building in Los Angeles on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Pali left the project in May, and Gensler was brought on.
The museum's newly appointed director, Kerry Brougher, joined the project from the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where he was chief curator and acting director. ARCHITECT sat down with Brougher in July shortly after he assumed his new position to speak about the new museum, his curatorial vision, and how the design supports his vision.
Being part of starting a new L.A. museum isn't entirely new to you. You were part of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) team that worked on the development and launch of The Geffen Contemporary in the early 1980s, and now you are working on the very first museum and new building for the Academy.
That was such a golden age for MOCA, I hope it gets back to that at some point. Pontus Hultén was the director—he was also the first director of the Pompidou, so he knew Renzo Piano. As a young curator, I was bowled over by having someone of his stature as the new director of this new museum in Los Angeles. Working with him made an enormous difference in my career because it opened me up to the possibilities of film in museums. Throughout my career I've tried to deal with the cinema in various ways, whether it be a physical exhibition like I did at MOCA that looked at crossovers between art and film since 1955, a show called "Hall of Mirrors," or whether it's commissioning artist Doug Aitken to do a giant projection onto the facade of the Hirshhorn Museum.
I actually take it back to those early days at MOCA where I really felt the potential of a museum being involved not only in visual art per say—in terms of painting, sculpture, and installation—but in the moving image. Bringing my museum background to the Academy, I can hopefully help create in three dimensions through the gallery space what they do so brilliantly in two dimensions on the screen.
Speaking of three-dimensions, can you elaborate more specifically on the aesthetics of the new building and how it relates to your curatorial vision?
The Academy brought me on admittingly a little late in the process, although I've been able to work with Renzo a couple of times already. I have to say I feel a nice symbiosis with his thoughts on the design and mine with the museum. My feeling is that the moving image has to be the primary core thing in the museum. That's the real artwork there! And, I find Renzo feels the same way. I also feel that one of the things we have to do is unveil the mechanisms of cinema to the public, so they get a sense of how art and technology come together to drive things forward. I find that Renzo's architecture is doing just that, it's about creating immersive environments.
The proposed design is quite a departure from a lot of Piano's other institutional buildings, in particular the adjacent buildings on LACMA's campus. What are your thoughts on the museum design?
We're sort of going to be on a Renzo campus here, but I think that with this new building he's really pushing it—he's pulling all the stops out, and that's what I want! I really want a building which is a signature building and some people may love it and some people may not, but you're going to pay attention to it. What we're seeking here, both Renzo and I, as Renzo put it one day—is to be inventive.
Can you talk about the renovation of this May Company building and how it's being incorporated into the museum design?
I have to say I'm so happy it's in this building for a couple of reasons. First of all, we're right next to LACMA, this is a wonderful area for people to come. The other reason is that I'm just thrilled this building will have a new life. While the outside of the building will remain about the same—its limestone facade will simply be cleaned up and the gold sphere on the front will remain—the interior will be transformed. The interior spaces that the May Company Building provides is an open framework for us to work in whatever ways we want, and that's where Renzo and I have done a lot of talking about including as much open gallery space as possible. The existing lobby is fantastic, it has a very high ceiling that is over 20-feet tall, Renzo envisions it as a continuous piazza from the outside. The May Company built an addition on the back of the building in 1946 that will be removed and will be restored to its original form. We're creating a concrete backing instead of the original limestone that was used, so you can see the difference between the old and the new. We will then connect the buildings with one of these wonderful Renzo spines that rises up so that people can move from floor-to-floor and into the sphere in an animated way. [Ed. note: The latest design connects the two buildings by bridges, rather than a spine.]
You told Variety in early June that the "image that has been used a lot is not accurate." Can you elaborate on this? How has the representation of the dome been misinterpreted in the press?
One of the issues we have to deal with in designing the dome is natural light. There was a very brief moment in which Renzo was looking at the possibility of cladding the dome with aluminum and then puncturing it so it would be more transparent as you moved towards the North. From an exterior perspective, the application of aluminum on the facade makes it look somewhat opaque. [Ed. Note: See this rendering in ARCHITECT.] ... We've since dropped that idea and are working with other means of achieving that same effect. We're in the middle of discussing how to control the light with select panels and being able to project onto it. Renzo's trying very hard to give me that, so I greatly appreciate his willingness to work with us.
From Renzo's willingness to Zoltan Pali's unwillingness to continue working on the project, do you have any comments on his exit?
No, not really. Zoltan was involved before I came on board and as I understand it Renzo and Zoltan worked together on the core design of the building, and we've sort of simply moved on now to having Gensler beginning to work on the detailed construction drawings. I think it's a matter of Zoltan pulling back and Gensler coming in to do the detailed drawings and we're continuing to massage the building's design with Renzo.
Are there any new directions for the design of the building that you can share with us?
Nothing that I haven't mentioned already. We've made a few changes inside as I previously mentioned. I wanted to get as much gallery space as possible so we shifted a few things here and there. I'm hoping to create a double-height gallery in the building, which Renzo has been very good about and loves the idea of creating. I feel that it all shouldn't be the same height as you move throughout but we have structural columns to deal with so it's not easy but I think we've figured it out. But no radical new direction!